I sing of warfare and a man at war.
From the sea-coast of Troy in early days
He came to Italy by destiny,
To our Lavinian western shore,
A fugitive, this captain, buffeted
. . .
Till he could found a city and bring home
His gods to Laetium, land of the Latin race,
The Alban lords, and the high walls of Rome.
Tell me the causes now, O Muse, how galled
. . .
From her old wound, the queen of gods compelled him—
. . .
To undergo so many perilous days
And enter on so many trials. Can anger
Black as this prey on the minds of heaven?
With these opening lines of the Aeneid, Virgil enters the epic tradition in the shadow of Homer, author of the Iliad, an epic of the Trojan War, and the Odyssey, an epic of the Greek hero Ulysses’ wanderings homeward from Troy. By naming his subjects as “warfare and a man,” Virgil establishes himself as an heir to the themes of both Homeric epics. The man, Aeneas, spends the first half of the epic wandering in search of a new home and the second half at war fighting to establish this homeland. Lines 2 through 4 summarize Aeneas’s first mission in the epic, to emigrate from Troy to Italy, as a fate already accomplished. We know from Virgil’s use of the past tense that what he presents is history, that the end is certain, and that the epic will be an exercise in poetic description of historical events. In the phrase “our Lavinian . . . shore,” Virgil connects his audience, his Roman contemporaries, to Aeneas, the hero of “early days.”
Even though we do not learn Aeneas’s name in these lines, we learn much about him. The fact that Aeneas’s name is withheld for so long—until line 131—emphasizes Aeneas’s lack of importance as an individual; his contribution to the future defines him. He is a “fugitive” and a “captain” and therefore a leader of men. That he bears responsibility to “bring home / His gods” introduces the concept of Aeneas’s piety through his duty to the hearth gods of Troy. Most important, we learn that Aeneas is “a man apart, devoted to his mission.” Aeneas’s detachment from temporal and emotional concerns and his focus on the mission of founding Rome, to which Virgil alludes in the image of walls in line 12, increase as the epic progresses.
In this opening passage, Virgil mentions the divine obstacle that will plague Aeneas throughout his quest: the “sleepless rage” of the “queen of gods,” Juno. Aeneas will suffer in the face of storms at sea and, later, a war on land, and Virgil attributes both these impediments to Juno’s cruelty. In line 13, the poet asks the muse to explain the causes of Juno’s ire. The invocation of a muse is the traditional opening line to an epic in the classical tradition beginning with Homer. Virgil delays his invocation of the muse by a dozen lines, first summarizing what might be considered a matter of mortal history, and then inquiring the muse of the matter’s divine causes.
Virgil’s question, “Can anger / Black as this prey on the minds of heaven?” brings up the ancients’ relationship to the gods. Within their polytheistic religious system, the Greeks and Romans reckoned the will of the gods to be the cause of all events on Earth. Instead of attributing forces of good and evil to the gods, as later religions did, the Greeks and Romans believed the gods to be motivated by emotions recognizable to humans—jealousy, vanity, pride, generosity, and loyalty, for example. The primary conflict in the Aeneid is Juno’s vindictive anger against the forces of fate, which have ordained Aeneas’s mission to bring Troy to Italy, enabling the foundation of Rome.
Did you suppose, my father,
That I could tear myself away and leave you?
Unthinkable; how could a father say it?
Now if it pleases the powers about that nothing
Stand of this great city; if your heart
Is set on adding your own death and ours
To that of Troy, the door’s wide open for it.
In this passage from Book II, which precedes Aeneas’s flight from burning Troy with his father upon his back, Virgil distinguishes Aeneas for his piety. This sense of duty has two components. The first is a filial component: Aeneas is a dutiful son to Anchises, and he wants to escape with him to safety. Aeneas makes it plain that his strong sense of family loyalty will not allow him to abandon Anchises. The second is a social component: Anchises, Aeneas argues, cannot choose to stay and die at Troy without affecting many others. Anchises is a patriarch, and were he to resign himself to death, he would effectively choose death for them all. These words of Aeneas’s lift Anchises out of the self-indulgence of despair and remind him of the leadership role that his seniority and status demand. In the ensuing episodes, even after his death, Anchises serves as a wise counselor to his son as Aeneas makes his way toward Italy.
Roman, remember by your strength to rule
Earth’s peoples—for your arts are to be these:
To pacify, to impose the rule of law,
To spare the conquered, battle down the proud.
This passage is part of the speech Anchises delivers to Aeneas in the underworld, in Book VI, as he unfolds for his son the destiny of Rome. Virgil places his own political ideals in the mouth of the wise father, warning that the Roman nation should be more merciful than violent, even in its conquests. Virgil here propounds the values for which he wants Rome to stand, and which he believes he has, in his own time, let guide him. Anchises’s rhetoric here about the Roman Empire’s justification for its conquering of other peoples expresses the same justification that Aeneas and the Trojans make for settling in Rome. They defend their invasion by arguing that they bring justice, law, and warfare—with which they “pacify” and “battle down”—to the conquered. Especially in modern times, critics and readers have taken passages such as this one and labeled them propaganda for the Augustan regime. This criticism is valid, but when the values of a regime are expressed by a poet who shares those values, the line between art and propaganda becomes blurry.
Amata tossed and turned with womanly
Anxiety and anger. Now [Allecto]
Plucked one of the snakes, her gloomy tresses,
And tossed it at the woman, sent it down
Her bosom to her midriff and her heart,
. . .
Slipping between her gown and her smooth breasts
. . .
While the infection first, like dew of poison
Fallen on her, pervaded all her senses,
Netting her bones in fire.
This vivid and disturbing description of the means by which the Fury Allecto incites Amata’s rage against Aeneas occurs in Book VII. Virgil plays on our senses, using images of fire, disease, poison, and sex to describe the passionate anger Amata feels at seeing her daughter’s proposed marriage thwarted and at hearing that a Trojan exile is to become part of her household. Virgil expresses the idea of being hot with anger by employing the images of things that, literally or figuratively, can heat a human’s blood. The invisible snake deployed by Allecto acts to enhance emotions already latent within Amata, since Amata already feels “womanly / Anxiety and anger” of her own. Even though Amata has perfectly good reason to despise Aeneas and the Trojans, Virgil explains her hatred by placing it physically in her body, suggesting that she incites war in the way she does because there is something wrong inside her. The snake unleashed by Juno essentially has a sexual encounter with Amata—it is as though Juno has impregnated Amata with madness.
When two bulls lower heads and horns and charge
In deadly combat . . .
. . .
[They g]ore one another, bathing necks and humps
In sheets of blood, and the whole woodland bellows.
Just so Trojan Aeneas and the hero
Son of Daunus, battering shield on shield,
Fought with a din that filled the air of heaven.
This passage from Book XII, in which Virgil describes Aeneas and Turnus locked together in the heat of battle, exemplifies a literary device Virgil employs throughout the poem: the epic simile. Virgil’s similes are extended comparisons of an element of action or a character to an abstract or external image or concept. These similes are often drawn from rural landscapes and farm life, and they often use the phrase “just so” as a connector. They give Virgil’s writing a descriptive richness by lingering at great length on some detail that might not otherwise have been illuminated. Often, Virgil uses the similes to give an interior depth to his characters, showing us by means of an analogy what it feels like to be that character in a given moment. This particular epic simile describes the intense battle between Aeneas and Turnus. By comparing these two warriors to bulls, Virgil conveys the potent, animalistic nature of their struggle.